Tuesday, August 16, 2005

AD: Love and Evil, Part One

I explored the question of why a loving God would allow a holocaust in my most recent book, The Gospel according to Moses. In a nutshell the idea is that God allows human evil to continue because he wants us to remain free to choose goodness, and unless evil exists as an alternative choice to good, we would not really have any choice at all, and so we would not really be free. Although God never condones our evil choices, He allows them for the sake of our freedom because He loves us.

A reader recently sent me a note about that, asking me to respond to the question, "How can God stand by when total evil is directed toward infants, causing them to suffer and die?" She offered a horrific example of the worst that man can do: the sexual abuse of an infant. The mind staggers at such an example, however such things do occur, and they must somehow be reconciled with the idea that God is love, unless we are prepared to abandon the notion of a God who loved the world enough to (somehow) die to save it.

As it happens, I believe the example she selected lends itself particularly well to this problem, because we know almost all child abuse occurs at the hands of people who were themselves abused as children. That in itself is a pretty good indication that original sin is true. Evil such as this does not spring from nowhere, and it is not a simple matter of people making bad choices. (Does anyone really believe one could be in complete control of one’s right mind one moment, and freely choose to fantasize about molesting children the next, without some compelling force at work?)

The self-replicating pattern of child abuse also hints at another point we should remember. As the creator of time, God sees all events in a continuum stretching backward and forward, which is all "now" to Him. This means God sees the abuser not only as a man in the grip of evil now, but simultaneously God sees the abuser as a child, also being abused right now (although for the abuser it happened thirty years ago). Similarly, God sees the baby in the reader’s scenario not only as a victim of abuse now, but also as an adult who is passing that abuse on to other children right now (although for the baby it will happen thirty years in the future). If God sees everything as "now," and if abused children grow up to be abusers, then whose free will should God suspend in this scenario, the man’s or the baby’s?

Of course our hearts demand protection for the child, and rightfully so. But the full answer is that both the man and child are ultimately the same in terms of original sin, so in order to exercise “equal justice for all” by removing the man’s free will, God must also remove the child’s. That said, if the child could express a preference, one assumes he would choose life as a survivor of abuse over life as a zombie. So we see that even in this, one of the most horrific examples of human evil one can imagine, still it is the lesser of two painful options faced by a loving God to let the evil continue.

This idea has at least two practical applications for the Christian. I’ll discuss them tomorrow.

Athol Dickson
Author of The Gospel According to Moses - What my Jewish friends taught me about Jesus.


At 7:38 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for tackling this very real and very difficult theme. Even as someone who truly believes all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord, I have trouble with comprehending such things. In God's time though, I think, we'll all get our answer and say, "Ohhhhhh..." and it will all make sense. Our human minds just can't wrap around it in our finite mortal understanding.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read your practical applications, Athol. I'll hold my thoughts until then just in case we're on the same wavelength. Looking forward to tomorrow

At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gina, I think the injustice of this world will all make sense in God's time, as you wrote. Will that mean we understand it? I don't know. But if the reason for it all is beyond our understanding even when we reach heaven (as it may well be) then we can still trust that our loving Father will grant the "understanding" of knowing it is well in our souls anyway. God bless you today!

At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your kind words about the "Love and Evil" blog, Mark. You asked a lot of good questions. Complete answers would fill a book, but I’ll offer my highly abridged two cents worth here:

QUESTION: ...is a world where people are "free to sin" really better than one where they are not?

In a way, this question is purely hypothetical, since no one has ever lived in a world where people are not free to sin. Adam and Eve did live in a world where no one had yet exercised that freedom, but of course we know the freedom to sin was always there, since they did in fact exercise it in their choice to disobey God.

But let’s say for the sake of discussion that such a possibility exists: a world where people are not free to sin. Would that be better than the world we have? The Bible is silent, as it is on most hypotheticals, but I think probably not. Here’s one reason why: I believe God is all powerful and perfectly good. Therefore I believe things are as they are for perfectly good reasons. If there were a better way for things to be, I believe an all powerful and perfectly good God would have made things that better way, because it would not be perfectly good for Him to settle for anything less. Note that I am not saying things are perfectly good as they are here and now, only that they must be the best way they can be at this time in accordance with a perfectly good God’s will. If not, God would be either imperfectly good, or limited in power (and thus not really "God" at all in accordance with the usual definition). The next question might be "how can this mess we live in possibly be the best option God has?" I think the answer to that is the message of Job 38:4: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand." In other words, He is God and we are not, and sometimes we just have to trust, remembering that the universe is a work in progress, which we are promised will ultimately be perfectly good, but is passing through a formative stage today that (for reasons known only to the Lord) requires the existence of evil. This leads straight to your next question:

QUESTION: If freedom must always include "freedom to sin," will we be less free in the New Jerusalem than we are now?

Here again, I don’t think we can know the answer in this life, for the same reason as above: the "new heaven and new earth" kind of existence described in prophecy is so completely beyond human experience up to now that we cannot even conceive of it. But I’m pretty sure the answer has something to do with the fact that our bodies will be changed at that time in accordance with the way our spirits have already been changed here and now. (1 Cor 15:35-57) Beyond that, we are talking about "a mystery" we will not understand until it happens (if then).

QUESTION: Are we more "free" than Christ?

I may be misunderstanding this one because it sounds a little like a rhetorical question, but if not my guess is you mean "more free" because we do sometimes exercise our freewill to choose evil over good, yet Christ never does. If that is the intended basis of the question, it might help to bear in mind the fact that Jesus’ decision not to sin does not mean he has no "freedom to sin." On the contrary, we know he was tempted to sin, (Matt 4:1, Heb 4:15-16) and I believe that means he must have had the freedom to sin, otherwise how could he truly have been tempted? (This is another point in support of the freewill defense of God’s goodness.)

These excellent questions touch on the age-old paradox, (antinomy, really) of freewill and predestination. That particular issue and the question of what to do with Biblical antinomies in general are topics I discuss at length in the chapters "God in Chains" and "Yes and Yes" in THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MOSES, and it would take too many words to explore them fully here. But briefly, we do know the antinomy exists because the Bible contains teachings on both sides of the discussion (compare John 6:27-29 with Ephesians 2:8-9 for example, and Romans 8:29-30 with Romans 10:9-10). I think we make a grave error when we insist on defending one of these two doctrine against the other. In my blog on love and evil the other day, I focused on the freewill side. But I also believe God foreknew and predestined my free choice to believe. In the blog I hinted at this when I noted that sinfulness is not a choice; it is an inherited condition, which causes us to choose to sin. The antinomy lies in that idea that original sin "causes us to [freely] choose." By its nature this is beyond human logic, yet it is widely seen in the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, so it must be accepted in faith. The answer to the freewill versus predestination debate is to remove the "versus" and simply believe them both with equal passion, because although such a "yes and yes" position cannot be fully understood, both doctrine are in the Bible, therefore we know they are both true.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Athol, I appreciate that you've answered at such length -- and so well. I think we're on the same page here, particularly on your point about affirming, in some sense, both sides of the age-old debate. I think my hang-up in the free will defense is that I don't feel I really "know" that this is the reason God ordains/permits what He does. I believe He has good reasons for what He does and what He allows, but even to say "it's because of free will and the rest is mystery" seems like more than I could affirm with certainty, because it might not be because of free will -- and doesn't have to be. Anyway, thanks for the answers, and I will definitely take a look at the chapters you've mentioned for more.

At 7:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I found this post when doing a search on Biblical antinomy--I am so thankful that I did! I am now reading The Gospel according to Moses and have just finished the first 3 chapters including "God in Chains" and "Yes and Yes." Desperately wishing for something much more eloquent to say, I am left with WOW! I have heard a million sermons on James 1:2-4, but never one that left me calm and reassured. "God in Chains" finally put the concept taught there in a package where I could see it as a joyful gift and not a terrifyingly unavoidable truth. For too many years I have shied away from this passage because it always left me spiritually cowering in the corner, hiding from God and hearing the sneering mockery of the enemy wondering what horrible tragedy God was going to inflict on me JUST to TEACH me something. Your beautiful description of God's dealing with you through the death of your mother reminded me of a similar experience of God's perfect Presence and inexplicable joy in the midst of the pain of a miscarriage I had 9 years ago. You reminded me of what I should have remembered, and helped me hold onto the proper way to understand these truths instead of the enemy's twisted attempts to drive a wedge between me and God (2 Cor 10:5).

Thank you so much!



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